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Theology and Science in the Postmodern World: Theological Perspectives (Part 2)

2. Lesslie Newbigin: Proper Confidence in a Pluralist Society

As noted above, Newbigin’s work has achieved much attention and acclaim, particularly his work on pluralism and the issue of certainty in the Christian faith. Newbigin provides in many ways the theological application of Polanyi’s insights to the dialogue between theology and science. Newbigin notes that in the current post-Christendom situation the church finds itself by and large marginalized in public discourse with its convictions being relegated to the sphere of the “private.”[1] Newbigin protests this relegation and takes the modern conception of science and politics to task in arguing against the idea that “facts” and “beliefs” are actually distinguishable. “Every exercise of reason” Newbigin argues, “depends on a social and linguistic tradition which is, therefore something which has the contingent, accidental character of all historical happenings.”[2]

Newbigin presses home this point through the example of the famous statement of the American founding fathers, “we hold these truths to be self evident…” As Newbigin points out, “it is obvious to us that the statements which follow these words are by no means self-evident. What we call ‘self-evident truths’ are not the starting point for rational argument, but the product of a long history of rational argument.”[3] All reasoning, Newbigin argues is constituted in a social and linguistic tradition which gives it shape and intelligibility. Therefore, science cannot be seen as an objective, neutral transcendent discipline to which theology must give an account.[4] Rather both science and theology are socially embodied forms of human reasoning and faith which must be judged on their own terms. Thus,

the true opposition [between theology and science] is not between reason and
revelation as sources and criteria for truth. It is between two uses to
which reason is put. It may be put to the service of an autonomy which
refuses to recognize any other personal reality except its own; which treats all
reality as open to the kind of masterful exploration that is appropriate to the
world of things, where the appropriate phrase is “I have discovered.” But
it may equally be put to the service of an openness which is ready to listen to,
be challenged and questioned by another personal reality. In neither kind
of activity can we engage except as rational beings. When reason is set
against revelation, the terms of the debate have been radically confused.
What is happening is not that reason is set against something which is
unreasonable, but that another tradition of rational argument is being set
against a tradition of rational argument which takes as its starting point a
moment or moments of divine self-revelation and which will continue to say, not
“We discovered,” but “God has spoken and acted.”[5]

When viewed in this light the confrontation between theology and science is seen not as a conflict between faith and reason but between different forms of socially embodied rationality and faith. Thus, on Newbigin’s view the standard evangelical approaches to science are tragic mistakes in that they fail to realize the true nature of the scientific tradition.

The scarcely concealed assumption is that he word “scientific” refers to a kind
of study which has no prior commitments about the nature of truth but has a
totally open mind, as thought the scientific mind were a sort of empty page on
which nothing had yet been written. The truth, of course is that both
approaches – the confessional and the scientific – presuppose (as all rational
inquiry must presuppose) a long tradition of thought and practice that
determines which beliefs are plausible and which are not.[6]

Thus, Newbigin recognizes that theology has no interest in seeking to accommodate scientific reasoning on its own terms. Science and theology stand on equal footing as socially embodied traditions of rational inquiry that each have constitutive narratives about the nature of reality. The idea of scientific certainty propagated by the Enlightenment turned out to be a chimera. All knowing entails faith, indeed it is “an illusion to imagine that there can be available to us a kind of certainty that does not involve personal commitment.”[7]

Newbigin notes that the affirmation that Jesus was crucified and proclaimed to be alive by his disciples, which is unquestionably accepted as a historical fact is not in principle different from the disciples’ affirmation that through Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. “Both statements are interpretations, the one being the interpretation of the disciples and the other being the interpretation shaped by the contemporary, modern worldview. Facts are not entities that simply implant themselves in a vacant mind; they are grasped by a mind trained in a particular culture to grasp them.”[8]

Thus, Newbigin rightly affirms in the same vein as Brueggemann that the encounter between theology and science must look radically different that has tended to be the case. Rather than domesticating the Christian message “within the reigning plausibility structure”[9] the proper theological response to science is to present an alternative plausibility structure which is embodied in the Christian story. It is pertinent on this point to quote Newbigin at length,

The business of the church is to tell and embody a story, the story of God’s
mighty acts in creation and redemption and God’s promises concerning what will
be in the end. The church affirms the truth of this story by celebrating it, interpreting it, and enacting it in the life of the contemporary world. It has no other way of affirming its truth. If it supposes that its truth can be authenticated by a reference to some allegedly more reliable truth claim, such as those offered by the philosophy of religion, then it has implicitly denied the truth by which it lives. In this sense, the church shares the postmodernists’ replacement of eternal truths with a story. But there is a profound difference between the two. For the
postmodernists, there are many stories, but no overarching truth by which they
can be assessed. They are simply stories. The church’s affirmation is that the story it tells, embodies and enacts is the true story and that others are to be evaluated in reference to it…It is if you like, a counterhistory, interpreting the same evidence in a different way.[10]

There will doubtless be objections that such a view of the nature reason and rationality leads to relativism and irrationalism. However such an objection begs the question by simply presupposing the view that Newbigin’s work calls into question. Moreover
, following Polanyi, Newbigin affirms the reality of objective truth, but simply recognizes the fact that there is no access to reality except on the part of knowing subjects who are socially and linguistically constituted in their patterns of rationality. This understanding necessarily rejects the “bogus objectivity” that has been exemplified in the definition of truth as

the correspondence of between a person’s beliefs and actual facts. This definition is futile since there is no way of knowing what the actual facts are except by the activity of knowing subjects. The definition implies a standpoint outside the real human situation of knowing subjects – and no such standpoint is available.[11].

This recognition, however does not entail subjectivism, because all belief is, as Polanyi has argued, personal commitment that is held with universal intent. Thus,

the alternative to subjectivity is not an illusory claim to objectivity, but the
willingness to publish and to test. And this has obvious relevance to the
Christian claim that Jesus is the true and living way, the master clue by
following whom we shall be led into the truth. We do not validate this claim by
calling to our aid some philosophical system based on other grounds. There are
no more reliable grounds than what are given to us in God’s revelation. The
proper answer to the charge of subjectivity is world mission, but it is not
world mission as proselytism but as exegesis.[12]

It should be very clear at this point the resources that Newbigin offers toward constructing a properly theological response to science that avoids the problems of the standard evangelical approaches. However, there remains the issue of epistemological realism should also be engaged. Newbigin is certainly right about the provisional, subjective and tacit dimensions of all knowledge. However, Christian theology seems inherently to maintain some level of givenness or reality to the universe. Toward explicating how those two elements can be held together I turn briefly to the work of Stanley Grenz.


[1] See Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 57-65; see also Foolishness to the Greeks, 95-100.

[2] Newbigin, The Gospel, 57.

[3] Newbigin, The Gospel, 58.

[4] Newbigin notes the similarities in the descriptions of scientific discovery and divine revelation. The descriptions of both of these events are strikingly similar, rendering invalid the epistemic distinction between reason and revelation. See Newbigin, The Gospel, 60-61.

[5] Newbigin, The Gospel, 62.

[6] Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 46.

[7] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 67.

[8] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 75-76.

[9] Newbigin, The Gospel, 10.

[10] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 76-77.

[11] Newbigin, The Gospel, 22.

[12] Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 33; see also The Gospel, 126.


  1. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    Well, it would seem that Newbigin is jumping to the top of my “to read” queue. Nuanced approaches like his that take academics into account in a rigorous way and yet result in a strong call to discipleship encourage me to believe that academics can be done in such a way so as to encourage rather than discourage faith. This is an issue that has been preoccupying me lately.

    Monday, December 18, 2006 at 5:51 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    It’s a good issue to be preoccupied with. The academy is a huge theological issue in itself, a fact that goes unnoticed by so many academic theologians.

    And Newbigin should be at the top of everyone’s reading list. :)

    Monday, December 18, 2006 at 9:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    Funny you should say that. The issue of the academy is precisely the thing that is preoccupying me lately: how to pursue academic excellence while maintaining faithfulness to Christ.

    Tuesday, December 19, 2006 at 6:59 am | Permalink

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